Ready, set, note!
Note-taking is not just for school and college goers. The rest of us also need to take down notes quite often, but doing it the usual way i.e. mostly in longhand is tedious. You’re in luck though, because there are several shortcuts that you can take to capture everything from lectures to meeting minutes to to-do lists. Let’s explore some of those shortcuts today.
Note: We’ll be focusing on digital note-taking for now, but you’ll find many of these tips handy for analog note-taking as well.
Use Symbols and Abbreviations
You already know how symbols and abbreviations work. It’s just a matter of adding them to your workflow to speed things up. Use @ for at, * for important, $ for money, != for not equal to, # for numbers, wt for weight, info for information, and so on. Browse websites like CopyPasteCharacter to find new symbols to add to your workflow.
Also, stick to universal symbols and abbreviations for easier recall:
ref = reference —> not confusing
w/o = without —> not confusing
nt = note-taking —-> confusing
Avoid using the same symbols for multiple items unless you’re 100% sure that you can instantly figure out what those symbols mean based on context. For example:
Down arrow = decrease, download —> not confusing
Right arrow = result, transfer —> confusing
List and Summarize
A listicle or point-wise outline makes for a simpler, more organized approach than scribbling down everything in paragraphs. Break your notes down into a logical list of key ideas. Use bulleted and numbered lists to expand on them. Rely on keywords and phrases instead of full sentences. Learn to identify information that’s trivial at best and leave it out.
Here's a few tips to improve your or your students' note-taking. pic.twitter.com/dRLYFDJxZ8
— ELTPedia UIS (@ELTpediaUIS) April 12, 2016
Also, use hashtags, @mentions, and other digital elements to highlight important ideas, group similar ones, add calls to action, etc. This makes it easier to scan your notes and recall relevant points faster at a later date.
You’ll also want to add Markdown to your note-taking workflow. This shouldn’t pose much of a problem, because many note-taking apps come with Markdown support these days. You can even use Markdown for Evernote with Marxico.
— Emily O'Byrne (@emilyobyrne) March 5, 2016
We recommend using a note-taking app that’s designed for creating outlines, such as Workflowy or Fargo. If you’re on a Mac, consider these three outliners for OS X as well. Remember, Microsoft OneNote can also double up as an outliner.
The advantage of using a digital notepad for creating outlines is that you can rearrange them at will anytime without messing up your notebook.
Use Graphic Elements
Sometimes words are just not enough to plot a map of an idea or a thought process. You need a visual way to see how different ideas fit together and how they interact with each other — precisely what a mind map is.
To start laying out your notes in the form of digital mind maps, you’ll need a dedicated tool for it. Consider using one of these eight free mind mapping tools that we have covered before.
— Zoë Whitby (@zwcoaching) May 5, 2016
If list-based note-taking isn’t working out too well for you, try Scott Young’s flow-based note-taking method, which involves an active, creative approach to note-taking via mind mapping.
By the way, mind mapping is not the only note-taking strategy that takes a visual approach. There’s another one that’s quite popular — sketchnoting.
Sketchnotes are a genius way of capturing ideas using a combination of simple drawing elements and words. Simply put, sketchnoting is yet another form of storytelling. Don’t worry about not having good drawing skills. You need just five basic graphic elements — the dot, line, triangle, square, and the circle — to get started with sketchnoting.
— Matt Miller (@jmattmiller) April 28, 2016
Sketchnoting works best with pen and paper, but you can also make it work with any drawing app on a tablet-like or stylus-based device. The iPad in particular has several apps that you’ll find to be convenient for sketchnoting. Penultimate and Paper are two of the most popular ones.
Learn Shorthand or Create Your Own
Dismissed shorthand as an outdated note-taking method? You might want to reconsider, because it’s probably worth the rest of the techniques in this list put together.
When someone sees me practising Pitman shorthand. pic.twitter.com/eqXovNc7h1
— Broede Carmody (@BroedeCarmody) November 16, 2014
With Shorthand, you can compress entire paragraphs into a few squiggly lines. Of course, learning how to do that is another story altogether. It requires patience and persistence. As long as you have those, the web will gladly supply the right tools to help you learn shorthand. This series of free shorthand lessons is a good place to begin.
Pitman shorthand is the best known among shorthand systems, but it’s not the only one available. Check out this guide to alternative handwriting systems to understand what your options are.
You could also study how an alphabetic shorthand system like EasyScript works and use that knowledge to come up with a shorthand system of your own. After all, rules are easier to remember when you’re the one making them up! Be sure to keep a legend just in case you need a quick recap of how to abbreviate certain words or what certain symbols mean.
— Marie Batey RN (@Marie_Batey) April 12, 2016
Drop Your “E”s and “U”s
Another trick to save time while writing notes or typing them is dropping vowels from words. Your eyes will still read the words just fine. Of course, you have to be selective about which vowels to drop if you want the words to retain their readability. For example:
lawn mower = lwn mwr (readable)
automobile = atmbl (unreadable), autombl (readable)
— Lala Rimando (@lalarimando) September 9, 2014
Now read this sample snippet:
2 othr updts tht yu’ll love in Inbox on mbile? Sngl-tap shrng for trip plns & 1-shot mltpl photo attchmnts to emails.
Not too difficult, right? The text does look a little weird, but you’ll get used to that too.
Use a Text Expander
If you want to shorten words and phrases, but wish you could read them back in full, you do have a partial solution in the guise of a text expander. You can use it to create a repository of shortened keywords and have them expand automatically when you type them in a note-taking app. We recommend the cross-platform text expander PhraseExpress, which has quite a few awesome uses beyond text expansion.
— Daniel J. Lewis (@theDanielJLewis) April 29, 2016
Dictating notes into your phone or computer is also quite convenient, once you get over the initial hiccups that come with using any dictation software. Siri, Google Now, Cortana, and Dragon Dictation are four of your top choices for dictation.
If you’re on Android, it’s time to start using OK Google, for notes and more. You can also replace the native Android keyboard with Swype Keyboard [No longer available], which allows you to use Nuance’s well-known voice recognition function, Dragon Dictation, with a keypress. If you’re on iOS, get acquainted with its inbuilt voice dictation feature.
Hipo is another useful app for voice notes. What’s interesting is that it categorizes your notes automatically. You can also supplement audio notes with text and images.
If you’re afraid of missing out on crucial information, you could use a recorder to capture audio from a meeting or a lecture, so that you can refer to it later. You’ll need a go-ahead from your boss or professor to do this. The problem with this recording approach is that you’ll still have to sift through the audio to ferret out the information that you need.
Though, OneNote does a neat job of combining voice notes with any text notes you add for context.
Switch to a Tried-and-tested System
Instead of using an assortment of note-taking techniques, you could adopt a standard system that comes with guidelines for taking notes and creating outlines. Bullet Journal is a good place to start. It gives you a sensible framework for taking notes of any kind while staying flexible enough for customization.
Bullet Journal uses a set of symbols to distinguish between tasks, events, notes, etc. and also to give them additional context. From there, it builds up to a set of modules, each of which represents a specific kind of notebook entry.
The Bullet Journal method is an analog system, but you can adapt it for digital note-taking quite easily. As an example, see how Nancy uses Evernote as a Bullet Journal. You can apply the same principles to any other note-taking app of your choice, such as Microsoft OneNote or Simplenote.
For task-based note-taking, the Circle system is also effective. It involves using a small set of circular symbols to identify tasks as important, delegated, in progress, cancelled, etc.
And let’s not forget the Cornell note-taking method, which comes highly recommended for university students. It involves the following sequence of actions for handling note-taking: record, question, recite, reflect, review. Here’s the official PDF that summarizes the Cornell system.
Getting massively into Cornell note taking at the moment: pic.twitter.com/zpoi74MXEM
— Tim Jefferis (@tjjteacher) April 19, 2016
Increase Your Typing Speed
Every time I see someone type with their index fingers I silently thank my elementary school for teaching me touch typing
— Gillian Lelchuk (@GillianLelchuk) May 2, 2016
You might even want to switch to an alternative keyboard that’s designed to make typing easier. We recommend SwiftKey if you’re on Android. Graffiti Pro for Android is also worth checking out. If you’re on iOS, take a look at our roundup of nine alternative iOS keyboards.
Keep a Notepad Handy
Having a notepad ready to go at all times saves you from fumbling around for a blank surface to write or type on. That notepad could be a sticky note on your desktop, a home-screen or lock-screen widget for your favorite note-taking app on your phone, or a pen and a piece of paper tucked into the back pocket of your jeans. I use a text file named Scratchpad as a notepad. It’s accessible super quick from the sidebar in my text editor, which is open 24/7.
I always have a notebook handy just in case my inner crazy wants to communicate. pic.twitter.com/C3t3qagGLn
— Derwin (@derwinv) April 19, 2016
Set up a Reliable Workflow
The beauty of note-taking is that you can tweak it to suit your needs. You can stick to a single note-taking technique or use different ones for different kinds of note-taking.
For example, you could use a Bullet Journal for tasks and monthly errands, switch to mindmaps when you’re fleshing out a presentation, and use an outliner option to capture meeting minutes effectively. Or you could use a combination of sketchnotes and voice recordings for taking down any kind of note. What’s important is that you create a standard note-taking workflow, complete with techniques, templates, and indexes. This will make it easier to just grab your notepad and get started with note-taking anytime.
What’s Your Note-taking Strategy?
Whether you swear by digital notepads or prefer to stick to good old pen and paper, there is an awesome note-taking workflow out there for you. You just need to experiment a bit to perfect it, and you can begin right here — with the note-taking tips we just laid out for you.
What is your preferred method for note-taking? Do you have any tips for quicker note-taking that could help others? Mind sharing them with us in the comments?
Image Credit: daydreaming by szefei via Shutterstock